By Tess McBride
9 a.m.-Arriving at Abernathy
The fog is still heavy when I arrive at the Abernathy Fish Technology Center near Longview, Wash. It hangs along with the thick moss covering the branches of the tall alder trees separating the facility's grounds from Abernathy Creek. As I walk around the grounds a gentle humming of machines follows, reminding me that the job of mimicking nature requires a great deal of manpower and new technologies.
Abernathy Fish Technology Center, established as a hatchery in 1960 and designated as a technology center in 1984, has solely focused on applied research since 2000. While the work done here often takes place under microscopes, the mission of the Center focuses on improving life outside the facility. The work done in the laboratories of this Center focus on better understanding naturally spawning fish, in order to try to produce hatchery fish that are properly prepared for the wild when they're released and to lessen any potential negative impacts they might have on naturally spawning species. In other words, the employees here have traded in their waders for white booties, but they're just as close to the species they've devoted their work to.
There will be neither waders nor booties for me today. Even though putting on somebody else's shoes for a day is exactly what I'm looking to do, both physically and figuratively, for my day-in-the-life series"Fish, Scales and Tales." This is a project where I go into the field and find out what it's like to work hands on with fish and other aquatic species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hands-on might be a stretch here, but that's for the safety of the facility, myself, and of course, the fish.
I think we can all agree that the kind of work done here is better off left to the experts. Not only would I be completely lost running DNA samples in the Conservation Genetics lab or experimenting with strands of bacteria in the Ecological Physiology lab, but other tasks would be a bit dangerous, including burning down fish food at 600 degrees Celsius in the Nutrition lab.
9:30 a.m.-Understanding the Facility
As I walk out to the fish holding tanks with Patty Crandell, the Deputy Center Director, the fog begins to lift and the sun suddenly darts though the tops of the alder trees. It reflects off the dewdrops hanging from the metal rails separating us from the empty ponds. Crandell stands with her hands in the pockets of her brown Service jacket with the sun to her back. Her day has been going since 7:30, when she took care of administrative work, such as emails and phone calls. This is what the most of her day consists of, revolving around both large and small scale issues, such as staffing, program, and IT worries. She says she gets away from these stresses during her lunch break, when she takes a hike with her two brown labs, who eagerly await this part of the day as much as Crandell does.
"We have quite a bit of wildlife out here," she says. While there are stresses to this job, Crandell says the best part of her position is being surrounded by employees who are both dedicated to their work and are excited to do it.
"I work with really high quality, professional people who care about what we do here," she says.
I set out to meet some of these people, beginning with the Nutrition lab.
10 a.m.- Visiting the Nutrition lab
After putting on a pair of protective goggles I slowly open the laboratory door and find Heidi Lewis, a nutrition biologist, widely grinning at me in a splattered, oversized lab coat and matching goggles. She informs me that today she's checking commercially produced fish feeds as part of quality control.
Right now Lewis is examining samples that come out of the"muffle furnace," a tan metal box reading a temperature of 598 degrees Celsius. Anything that comes out of here is pretty much ash. In addition to ash, Lewis and others look at the percentage of moisture, protein and fat in different commercially produced fish food samples sent to the facility by National Fish Hatcheries in the Pacific and Pacific Southwest Regions.
"The bottom line is that we want to make an economic and environmentally friendly feed for the fish," Lewis says,"So we have to look at the less sustainable ingredients, such as fish oils, and we look for alternatives to that, like maybe plant ingredients."
This makes sense, but what's the point of understanding protein and fat levels? Lewis tells me that not only do different fish species need diverse levels of protein and fat, but different age groups of fish need varying amounts as well. For example, young fish, even though they're small, need higher levels of these ingredients to sustain the rapid growth they're experiencing.
Lewis is specifically looking at fat levels, and directs me to a lab next door to learn more about determining protein levels. Nathan Hyde, a biological technician, is in charge of this job today. Hyde shows me a teardrop shaped piece of tinfoil, in which he measured out 0.1 grams of a ground-up sample of fish food. He tells me this piece of tin foil gets dropped into the"Determinator," which reinforces my theory that most instruments used by fish biologists either look like or sound like they came from an 80's science fiction movie.
The Determinator, or Nitrogen Analyzer, reads the percentage of nitrogen of each sample, then calculates the protein level by running a multiplication formula. I hear a machine start up across the room and suddenly the air smells strongly like fish food.. While the Determinator does its thing, Hyde shows me the previous readings on the computer screen. Each group of samples has to have three readings in a row that are within .05 of each other."2.631" pops up on the screen.
"Oh, I gotta run two more," Hyde says, carefully measuring out another tin foil tear filled with a miniscule amount of ground fish food. This is what Hyde states as the most challenging part of his job: the attention to detail.
"There are lots of steps, and any step can lead to errors," he notes."Remaining in a state of really good concentration is important." At this cue I let Hyde focus completely on his work as I venture outside to watch a genetic sampling of a fish take place.
10:30- Learning about genetic sampling
John Holmes and Jeff Poole meet me near the fish ladders to demonstrate how genetic sampling works. After Poole nets a steelhead the fish is put in anesthetic to slow its breathing and make it easier to handle outside of the water. It's checked for any embedded identification tags, which provide information on where the fish came from and on any genetic samples previously taken. The fish is tagged if it hasn't previously been, scale and fin samples are clipped and stored, its weight and length are recorded, and a photo is taken of the fish before it's returned to the water to resuscitate. Basically, this steelhead has just been profiled.
Holmes, a fish biologist, tells me they usually sample up to 20 steelhead a day during the winter months. The facility first captured 500 juvenile steelhead in 1999; these fish produced offspring, which were released from the Center in the spring of 2003. Holmes and others look at the amount of fish that eventually return to Abernathy Creek to spawn at the end of their life cycles. Early return rates were low, around 0.3 percent, although these numbers have improved over time.
"In recent years our return rate has increased from 0.5 percent up to around 1 percent," Holmes notes."Our goal is that the natural hatchery fish be genetically the same as the wild fish." By looking at both naturally spawning- and hatchery-raised steelhead, Holmes can determine what fish are returning to the facility and how different they are genetically. This research integrates ecology, physiology, genetics, nutrition, and fish culture to better understand how hatchery fish can have increased survival and reproduction rates similar to those of their wild counterparts.
"If our study results show we're having detrimental effects on naturally occurring populations, or having positive effects, both are beneficial to know," Holmes concludes.
At this, I decide to head indoors, beginning to think the cold weather is having detrimental effects on my ability to feel my toes.
11 a.m.- Exploring the Ecological Physiology lab
Drawn to the warmth of a brightly lit room, I find myself in the Ecological Physiology lab where I meet Richard Glenn, a microbiologist. Glenn is working with bacteria, which I learn can tell you a great deal about fish health, nutrition, and the environments fish live in.
"Everything has bacteria in it. You've got it in the creek, you've got it in people, and you've got it in fish," Glenn mater-of-factly points out. Looking at what types of bacteria are found, in addition to the amount of them, can provide information on how to better treat and prevent diseases in both wild and hatchery-raised fish. Glenn's job consists of first identifying the bacterial pathogens, then researching different ways to either treat them or let them live out their course on their own.
"You have to develop innovative ways to identify them," Glenn says of the pathogens."Without understanding the pathogen itself, we are very limited in our understanding of the fish and their environment and how they live." From an ecological standpoint, pathogens can also inform of us environmental changes occurring, Glenn adds.
"That's what I think makes them cool," he says of bacteria."They're at the very bottom of the food chain, and everything has to have them." That's pretty cool indeed. On this note I decide to see about the innovative, and also cool, work going on in the Conservation Genetics lab.
12 p.m.- Getting to know the Conservation Genetics lab
After watching and listening to the buzzing, zipping and clicking of the equipment in the Conservation Genetics lab, I meet with Christian Smith, a conservation geneticist and the lab manager. Smith talks to me about some of the work he's done surrounding the likely future removal of Condit Dam, which is located on the White Salmon River in south-central Wash.
Basically, when the dam is removed the sedimentary build-up that has gathered throughout the years will be released. This sludge, which is high in mercury, will run down and destroy any fish and eggs in this area. Smith's work has involved looking at the Chinook populations living below the dam.
His work has looked at the genetic qualities of the fish in this area, and the potential repercussions of losing an entire generation's eggs during the dam removal process. Contrary to prior beliefs that there was only one population of fish in this area, Smith said his work revealed there are actually two distinct populations here.
"Chances of survival are based on (a fish's) genetic variation," Smith notes in regard to losing a population of fish."You never know which population has the right combination of traits to survive."
In response to the fear of losing this population and with the help of Smith's research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has transported adult fish from below the dam to an area above it, where their offspring won't be lost during the dam removal. These fish have been tagged and so far the plan appears successful.
"It's really exciting to get to do that work, and not only do that work but get that work applied to help that species," Smith says. This thought makes me want to leave the lab and try to find some of the species that Smith's work has assisted.
1 p.m.- Experiencing Abernathy Creek
After leaving Smith I head towards Abernathy Creek by following the tall line of alder trees. As I walk farther away from the facility, the humming of machines turns into the sound of running water. The sun sporadically peeks through the green sweaters of moss and lichens coating each tree, and the smell of the outdoors is pungent compared to the scent lingering in the labs.
No more white coats, no more clicking machines, and no more sterilized tools; this is what the Center's employees work for. Similar to Crandell, who is probably enjoying her lunchtime hike right now, these employees spend their free time enjoying the natural beauty of this area, while devoting their work hours to making it, and other Northwest aquatic systems, a better place. The job of mimicking nature is indeed a difficult one, but after visiting Abernathy and witnessing the high-tech approaches used to balance conservation efforts with nature, I now I believe it's an attainable one.